Dick Welle, a board member at the Colorado co-op where he retired as general manager, has good reason to be both pleased and proud that electric cooperatives nationwide are joining an ambitious effort to put more military veterans on co-op payrolls.
Forty years ago, he was a veteran himself, looking for something solid, steady, and meaningful to do with his life.
“I’m glad to see the veterans hiring project NRECA is involved in,” he says. “We’re all challenged in training individuals for the future of our co-ops, and veterans have a lot to offer.”
That hiring project is “Serve Our Co-ops; Serve Our Country,” an NRECA-led nationwide initiative to honor and employ veterans, military service members, and their spouses.
When he learned of the program, Welle’s thoughts turned back to when he returned from combat duty in Vietnam.
“I came out of the service a bit angry,” he remembers. After two enlistments that included fire-support service on a Navy destroyer off the North Vietnamese coast, he got home to northwestern Colorado in late 1972, when the country was deeply divided over the long conflict. People in the war-torn country he’d left behind just wanted the violence to end, while Welle and other American boys who’d been doing the fighting knew their service was strongly, sometimes nastily, opposed by many of their fellow citizens.
“I saw incidents where Vietnam veterans were booed and hissed and spat upon,” Welle says. “You come home, and you feel that stress and anger. I was kind of an angry young man. This type of animosity has changed over the years. I’m proud of my service and so happy to see that today our country has a greater appreciation for and honors the sacrifices of its military service people.”
He was feeding cattle as a ranch hand, waiting to start college on the GI Bill, when two “life-changing events” altered his course.
“I met my lovely wife, Cindy, and I responded to an ad in the local newspaper for a groundman position at the local electric cooperative, White River Electric Association,” he says of the co-op in Meeker. “I was awestruck that my interview was with the general manager, and our total discussion was about my military service and combat experience.”
That approach to the interview worked out well for him, Welle says, since “I knew nothing about the cooperative, electricity, or what the job entailed.”
The general manager he met with was Roger Purdy, who was a military veteran himself. “Roger was pretty intuitive about military discipline,” Welle says. “He asked, ‘What did you achieve in the military?’ I told him that I had decided that while I was there, I was going to achieve the most I could.”
Welle told Purdy about his promotions, which took him about as high as an enlisted sailor could go and placed him in command of shipboard crews. And he listed his medals and combat service ribbons. “I had these things I was very proud of,” he says now. “Roger kind of wanted to know all that. He wanted to know what I had achieved. All I wanted was to look forward, and to have an opportunity. And thank God, he gave me a shot. I was granted an opportunity because I was a veteran.”
And aside from a short stint in the mid-’70s, when he helped out his ailing father in the plumbing business, Welle made the most out of that opportunity.
He’d moved up from groundman to apprentice lineman by the time his father summoned him back to what could have been a new career in the family business. But, Welle recalls, his father recognized a change in his son.
“Dad would give me heck as we were driving to a plumbing job, cause I was always looking up, patrolling the lines. I guess I never gave up the idea that line work was already well in my blood.”
In the spring of 1976, White River Electric called again, asking him to rejoin its crew. “I immediately agreed and came back, entry level again, and started over,” he says.
And this time, Welle stayed. He moved through the co-op ranks in much the same way a career military officer would, advancing to journeyman lineman, line foreman, general foreman, line superintendent, operations manager, and engineering coordinator. In 2000, he became general manager, the position he would retire from 13 years later.
For nearly 40 years, Welle and his crews worked through heavy snows and tough terrain to keep the lights on for the roughly 3,000 residential, ranching, and mining meters that make up the White River Valley.
“When I look back at some of my earliest years, we were looking at a line crew that may have been only four or five people, covering 900 miles of line or so,” he says. “We spent a lot of nights out on downed conductors, with people out of power. I remember sometimes going out on snowshoes.
“But with my military background, whenever things got tough, I’d stop and look at my buddy and say, ‘You know, at least we aren’t dodging bullets here.’ Even as general manager, when you wonder how bad can things get, having that perspective can get you through.”
By the time he reached the management level at White River Electric, Welle realized how valuable that military background and perspective could be in a co-op employee.
“When I had the capability of hiring, I was always looking for that veteran status. It doesn’t mean that every veteran is always your candidate, but it tells you a lot about an applicant. I just think it’s great that we can reach out and connect even stronger with the many veterans who are out there looking for work today.”
Little more than a year after Welle retired as general manager, a seat opened up on White River Electric’s board.
“I had mixed emotions about putting my name in for that appointment,” he says, so he checked in with other board members and, more important, his successor in the co-op’s corner office. “I was quite candid with the CEO the board had hired to replace me. I said I wasn’t sure I’d want the ex-boss of the co-op to be on my board.”
But the board and the CEO welcomed him. It’s a lightly populated area, and an experienced, knowledgeable prospect for board membership was too good to pass up.
After less than two years on the board that used to oversee him, Welle has earned NRECA Credentialed Cooperative Director status and his Board Leadership Certificate, and he has already begun on the next level: Director Gold.
“This is the last position in my co-op career, and I’m really enjoying it,” he says. “I’m a co-op guy, and it’s great to have the opportunity to finish up like this.”
It all came about because a veteran of one conflict gave a young veteran of another the chance to start a new career.
“That’s the whole nexus here,” Welle says. “That one opportunity granted to me, not because I knew anything about electricity or co-ops, but because I was a veteran and willing to do the job asked of me. It’s important to see that veterans are given an opportunity to achieve their potential in the rural electric program.”
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